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The evangelist who united America Billy Graham's son is destroying his work

His vision remains a fantasy (Getty)


November 8, 2022   6 mins

There was a time when evangelical Christians were peace-making unifiers in American politics: an era that produced the closest thing to a Protestant saint the nation has ever seen. Billy Graham’s mass appeal stemmed in part from his aversion to partisan politics. The Southern Baptist minister is estimated to have preached to over 215 million people, and enjoyed personal audiences with 12 consecutive US presidents, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama, advising them on religious matters regardless of which party they represented.

During that span, Billy’s interventions in politics were purposely few (although he did openly support Richard Nixon over Roman Catholic John Kennedy). Above all, his priority was to remain neutral, so as to alienate none and reach many. His biographer Grant Wacker described him as the “Great Legitimator”, noting that Billy’s mere “presence conferred status on presidents, acceptability on wars, shame on racial prejudice, desirability on decency, dishonour on indecency”.

Billy died, at the age of 99, in February 2018, but he lived long enough to see his good work vanish. His ministry, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA), is now ruled by his Trump-supporting, loud-mouthed, rabidly partisan son, Franklin Graham, whose name is synonymous with controversy in the United States — and, more recently, in the UK. The difference between these two men reflects how American evangelical Christianity has, like American politics, evolved — becoming more fractured and polarised.

Billy was the product of the consensus-building Fifties, when church attendance in the United States was actually rising and the battle for souls and donations, like the struggle against international Communism, was waged across party lines. An heir to the rambunctious, revivalist free-market tradition in American religion (the country has never had an established church, and the last state to financially support the Episcopalian church ceased funding it in 1833), Graham followed the example of the great 19th century evangelists, Charles Grandison Finney and Dwight Moody. Both leapt on the technologies of their time — handbills and large outdoor revivals — to draw large followings; Billy had radio and television at his disposal.

Franklin, by contrast, is a child of the late Seventies, when church attendance had begun to dip, and evangelicals became more radical. Young ministers such as Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and televangelist Oral Roberts had begun to organise fierce opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that women had a fundamental right to choose. It was opposition that increasingly aligned them — and their small but politically active congregations — with the interests of the Republican Party.

It’s not that Billy was uncontroversial. But his most talked-about interventions were always for the sake of unity, rather than division. Although a moderate in most respects, Billy, a native of largely conservative North Carolina, made waves during the late Fifties for welcoming black and white people alike to his revival events, at a time when many public venues in the American South were legally segregated. He also encouraged mainstream Protestants — Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians — to remain within their churches even after they absorbed his message of “accepting Jesus Christ as your personal saviour”. Knowing that curious “inquirers” would return to their churches with renewed enthusiasm, the leaders of these denominations were always happy to partner with Graham’s “crusade counsellors”, to promote his events and boost his attendance figures. Graham wanted to reach listeners, not sow discord within American Protestantism.

Most tellingly of all, Billy refused to join with ultra-conservative religious figures such as Falwell. He had no wish to tie BGEA to the culture wars of the Religious Right. If he ever lapsed into expressing the kind of social conservatism that the Christian Broadcasting Network might champion, he hurriedly recanted. After commenting in 1993 at a religious event in Ohio that AIDS might be a “judgment of God”, Billy retracted his words, stating a few days later that “to say God has judged people with AIDS would be very wrong and very cruel”. One of the myths about tolerance in America, tied to the myth of moral progress so popular here, is that the past is always benighted and bigoted compared to today. The story of evangelicalism in the United States, which played a key part in the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and women’s suffrage in the early 20th, proves otherwise. Billy Graham, in fact, represents the high-water mark for evangelical tolerance. His intolerant son has made sure of it.

Unlike Billy, who graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois — considered the “Harvard of American evangelicalism” — and proceeded almost immediately into a star-studded career in preaching, Franklin took a more circuitous path to success. He dropped out of a Christian private school, and was later expelled from a small Christian college for staying out past curfew with a female classmate. After he finally graduated, instead of immediately working for BGEA, he became the president of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian aid organisation. There, he came into his own as a prolific fundraiser.

A morally unimpeachable, thoughtful theologian he was not. But Franklin was representative of a new kind of Christian leader: the born-again crusader who could galvanise his own flock without building bridges outside of it. The parallels with politics are uncanny: where once Democrats and Republicans had fought for the voters in the centre, the stars of both parties have become more ideological and less accommodating since the turn of the millennium. Elections have increasingly favoured hardliners and zealots over bipartisan cooperators.

When, in 2000, Franklin was finally appointed CEO of BGEA, he wasted little time moving the organisation in a direction more consistent with the work of his contemporaries on the Religious Right. Billy Graham could win souls by the millions, but he could not secure Congressional votes by the dozens; younger evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed could, thanks to their hand-in-glove relationship with the Republican Party. As political science professor John Hicks wrote in 1996, this was a strategic decision with profound consequences: it gave evangelicals access to a network of support to influence elections and public policy decisions.

Franklin, however, thrived by continually provoking clickbait headlines. Following the 9/11 attacks, he declared that Islam was “a very evil and wicked religion”, and supported the resulting war in Iraq. Where his father might have recanted, Franklin doubled down in the face of criticism from more mainstream religious leaders, who pressured the Army into disinviting him from its National Day of Prayer at the Pentagon in 2010. “True Islam can’t be practiced [in the United States],” he told CNN in 2009, “because you can’t beat your wife or murder your children.” When asked by CNN in 2010 about Barack Obama’s religious background, he replied that “the president’s problem is that he was a born a Muslim”.

In a 2005 interview about his son’s provocative comments, Billy made it clear that he didn’t approve: “Let’s say, I didn’t say it.” But he didn’t face the same challenges as his son. It is growing secularism that explains Franklin Graham’s shift away from his father’s nonpartisan approach. Like any actor in the marketplace of ideas, Franklin is keenly aware that his market, unlike his father’s, is shrinking. The religiously unaffiliated, or the “unchurched”, now account for a quarter of all Americans — a trend noted in Robert Putnam’s seminal work Bowling Alone, and which has only intensified in the past half-decade. Nowadays, 27% of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, and another 18% as “neither religious nor spiritual”. Aware of the partisan nature of his support and increasingly unable to grow the size of his flock, Franklin needed to motivate those who remained to donate, advocate, and vote on his behalf.

And so, he leaned into his divisiveness. In 2014, he — like Pat Buchanan, Rod Dreher, and a number of other American conservative leaders — praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for passing tough anti-gay legislation. More recently, he publicly chastised openly gay Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg during his 2020 presidential campaign. The same year, despite growing racial diversity among American evangelical Christians, he denounced Black Lives Matter and posted on Facebook that police shootings could be avoided through “respect for obedience and authority”. His followers, who back most of the same policies he does to a greater or lesser degree, recognise that Franklin speaks for them. If anyone doesn’t, Franklin told The Atlantic in 2017, they can “talk to God about it”.

His rhetoric, and appeal, is Trumpian. So it’s hardly surprising that Franklin explains in the same interview why he chose to hitch BGEA’s fortunes to those of Trump: “He did everything wrong
 and he became president of the United States.” There’s “no question,” for Franklin, that God must therefore have been supporting Trump, a much-needed “Christian voice in office”. Throughout the ex-President’s two campaigns for office, Franklin included a few minutes of political material in each of his sermons, often opening by discussing how abortion is murder, how same-sex marriage is a sin, and, most importantly, how the increase in secularism will result in godless Communism.

Recent research has found that the increasing percentage of Americans who identify as atheist or agnostic do indeed have a clear political affiliation: they make up 20.6% of Democrats, up from 11.8% in 2008. (In Republican ranks they constitute a mere 4% now, up slightly from 3.3% in 2008.) Not only that, but these atheists and agnostics are more likely than evangelicals to donate to political campaigns, attend political meetings, put up political signs, and attend political protests. Billy Graham devoted his entire career to pulling such people back into the fold. Franklin, by contrast, has focused on maximising the value of the devout audience he has left — even as Republican politicians focus on preaching to the converted rather than reaching across the aisle.

On Saturday, Franklin tweeted: “I loved this country, and I cannot vote for candidates or the party that supports abortion, defunding our police, or open borders.” In today’s midterms, many “too-close-to-call-elections” could turn on votes from either the Religious Right, who would agree whole-heartedly with this sentiment, or the growing minority of unchurched, who are likely to be disgusted by it. The irreconcilability of these two groups warns of further polarisation downstream. But some thinkers, such as Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule, have argued that religion could again have a unifying role in the future of the American polity. It would take a great unifier like Billy Graham, not a sectarian divider, to achieve such a lofty goal. For now, American Protestantism, once considered the ecumenical moral bedrock of the nation, is diminished and enmeshed in party politics — and the America bound together by “common things”, for which Billy Graham so earnestly preached, remains an unrealisable fantasy.


Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work

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Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago

I get this strange feeling that Bateman might just want Christians who go along to get along. Just pop culture Christianity without any actual beliefs. Look, I have met plenty of self-righteous Evangelicals who are terrible Christians and all around terrible people. I am skeptical that is the case here. For one thing, Christianity is the only religion that falls into the modern list of “acceptable targets” to attack and is viciously attacked by leftist culture and politicians. The second is I have seen many hated figures lionized by their enemies as a farce after their death and the record rewritten. All just to attack their successors and pretend they are worse. I will give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one, but I cannot help but be a little suspicious.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

I don’t give him the benefit of the doubt. He knows full well what he does. The funny thing is that the people on that side of the fence have no problem pummeling Christians, who would mostly give their lives for Mr. Bateman’s right to mock them. However, if given the chance, his kind would likely stomp on the throats of those who don’t agree. No comments whatsoever about what Muslims believe of gays and transgenderism.
I don’t agree with Franklin’s hard line in that we are all sinners, every last one of us. And my sin is no worse or better than anyone else’s. The difference is that I am not proud of my sin and would never flaunt it by having a parade to celebrate it.

Dominic S
Dominic S
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

The Bible is very clear that we are all, every last one of us, sinners.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

What told me enough about the writer’s political bent was his line: “the 1973 Supreme Court decision that women had a fundamental right to choose.”
Someone not too familiar with recent history might wonder: choose what? The color of their party dress? Hair in a ponytail, a bun or just let it all hang loose? NO — it gave women the power to impose death sentences on innocent babies, without even asking their fathers’ opinions.

Last edited 1 year ago by Wim de Vriend
Kat L
Kat L
1 year ago
Reply to  Wim de Vriend

Wow I had that same thought exactly.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

The author is wrong to say that Franklin Graham’s political views are polarising – apart from abortion which is (inevitably) so – defunding the police and open borders until a few years ago would have been anathema to the Democrats as well as Republicans. It will be interesting to see if Latinos keep trending Republican whether Democrats will be so laisse faire about an uncontrolled (southern) border. It should be noted that Republican views have stayed the same on abortion, policing, guns and even softened on things like gay and transgender rights compared to when Billy Graham was in his pomp.
On the religious side should a religious leader not be able to describe another religion as evil or that secularism leads to godlessness? For a preacher to be branded divisive over those sort of comments (i.e. not calling for violence against other religions or secularists) is a pretty low bar. Someone calling for the opposite (i.e. more secularism or pro-islamic views) would not be described as such.

Phil Richardson
Phil Richardson
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I tend to agree – these views aren’t polarising, the poles are well and truly in place. Pole One: those who accept limits and the ‘givenness’ of human life derived from ideas of God or nature. Pole Two: those who refuse these things and commit to endless self-creation.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

This article is just another example of the left deploying their standard playbook

Last edited 1 year ago by Ethniciodo Rodenydo
William Hickey
William Hickey
1 year ago

A formerly homogeneous nation, 90% white in 1950, becomes openly — if undemocratically — multicultural and the results are increasing factionalism and conflict. Even religious leaders find they have to “take sides” in the new heterogeneous nation instead of reaching out across the no longer broad social and cultural consensus.

Who would have ever predicted that? Too bad there aren’t things called history and sociology to help smart people warn us against these preventable evils.

Luckily we do have people like Oliver Bateman to scold us for being too self-centered and our leaders for being too loyal to their beliefs.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago
Reply to  William Hickey

Well said. It appears the author would be favorable only to “cafeteria Catholicism”. It’s utterly flabbergasting that someone who calls themselves a historian and a journalist could be so ignorant about history and the world.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 year ago
Reply to  William Hickey

People used to worry that various kinds of Roman Catholic ethnicities (Irish, Polish, Italian etc) where making the US heterogeneous.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

It did not turn out well though did it

Peter Hollander
Peter Hollander
1 year ago

There is one Gospel and its believers follow what the Bible says. Today’s Left illiberal humanists despise Christians for their adherence to truths that were established over millennia, and prefer their own ever changing beliefs which whenever followed have led to misery, nastiness, cruelty, selfishness and broken societies lacking freedom.
If Franklin follows his father’s faith in Jesus and teaches what the Bible says, he is neither conservative nor liberal, but a disciple of Jesus.
Seeking to place people in identity pigeonholes not of their making is divisive. This article’s sneering tone says all you need to know about its author. Very disappointing.

Gerald Arcuri
Gerald Arcuri
1 year ago

Where to begin? And, where to end. The author is keen to mischaracterize the Christian faith, that much is clear. He neither understands it, nor gives much credit where it is due. The moniker “evangelical” has now become an epithet, by the simple linguistic magic of emptying it of any real meaning, and filling the void with whatever cant is convenient. ( see the author’s use of the capitalized term “Religious Right”, which is code for whatever concocted group the secular Left wants to demonize. )

Franklin Graham is not Billy Graham. Anyone familiar with the family knows that. And, Franklin Graham is a flawed human. Welcome to the human race. But a fair examination of his life and work would acknowledge the unimpeachable humanitarian organization he has nurtured, Samaritan’s Purse. It has done more good for more people in more places – with no strings attached – than perhaps any other humanitarian agency, governmental or NGO on the planet.

When the author has an accomplishment he can compare with this, I might listen to what he says. Until then, he should consider whether or not to cast any more stones.

Last edited 1 year ago by Gerald Arcuri
Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
1 year ago

Liberal journalists always love the last conservative and hate the new one.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
1 year ago

Billy Graham was from an age when conservative Christian’s were as likely to be Democrats as Republicans. That’s no longer the case. Christians are nearly all republicans while the Democrats have become the party of satanists.

Micael Gustavsson
Micael Gustavsson
1 year ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

Do you mean that satanists have a domineering or defining influence on the Democratic Party, or merely that the existing, practicing satanists in the US today tends to overwhelmingly vote Democratic.A big difference, I do say.

Wim de Vriend
Wim de Vriend
1 year ago

I’d say both are the case.

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
1 year ago

Billy Graham still holds the record for the biggest crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Tony Taylor

What? He beat Donald Bradman? Surely not?

tom j
tom j
1 year ago

Oh come on, Billy G was clearly a conservative republican, there is no way in 2022 that he would be able to avoid the culture wars. The left does not tolerate dissent.

David Kingsworthy
David Kingsworthy
1 year ago
Reply to  tom j

He surely was conservative but I agree with the author that he avoided advocacy for one party over the other, and that he would do so today. I believe that true Christians don’t ultimately care about politics, as people are flawed and will always seek their own interests instead of God’s.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago

I agree that ultimately true Christians don’t care about politics and I think that here in England Christians are not as almost exclusively right wing as in the US. Thankfully we have Christians across the political spectrum and our centrist party, the Liberal Democrats, was led by a Christian, Tim Farron, until he had the integrity to stand down for misleading a journalist regarding his views on homosexuality.

Warren Trees
Warren Trees
1 year ago

Jesus Christ was so divisive in His day that he was murdered for His radicalism! And you want to single out Franklin?

AJ MacKillop
AJ MacKillop
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren Trees

Radical indeed, but radically compassionate and forgiving too. While he advocated and lived according to a rigorous ethical code, I don’t see how the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth are well-aligned with any conservatism that is unwilling to question tradition or inherited beliefs.
I am not saying he was simply a leftist radical, as some attempt to argue, but the hearts of all who condemn and judge in his supposed name–wherever they fall on the ideological spectrum–are far from him. And yes, I could stand to be less judgmental myself.

Richard Ross
Richard Ross
1 year ago

The Grahams, father and son, have never moved in their spiritual beliefs. It’s the Democratic Party and the left wing of society that has moved, and now expects those who stand for goodness (like the Grahams) to “unify” us all – under the Leftist umbrella. To quote President Reagan, “I didn’t leave the Dem. Party; the Dem. Party left ME”.

Dominic S
Dominic S
1 year ago

What an appalling, inaccurate, and anti-Christian article.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

We should mention that Samaritan’s Purse, under the leadership of Franklin Graham and his team, has provided disaster relief, on a massively global level, for victims of cataclysm and storm damage around the world.
Another detail that should be mentioned is this. In the history of mankind, there is only one person who has suffered a criminal execution and death, and then lived to tell about it. When we–each one of us–face that ultimate, common destiny, death–would we. . . would you. . . choose to ignore the only human who has conquered death itself? Would you not accept his invitation to eternal life? This is the question that all men and women should consider. Franklin will, as we all will, face his Creator on the other side of death’s door.
But more importantly, when your moment arrives for crossing that dreaded frontier, what will you say when you’re offered the path to follow Christ into eternal life?

Quo Peregrinatur
Quo Peregrinatur
1 year ago

What is a Christian to do? Conciliate on political projects antithetical to Christianity, which are propped up by government, quangos, academia, mass media and the full spectrum of high corporate globocapital? And to do this in the name of “unity?” What unity? Whose unity?
Even Billy would be forced to enter the political fray were he preaching in our era. The center is gone.

Quincy Collins
Quincy Collins
1 year ago

As a retired Baptist pastor, I welcomed God’s forgiveness and love after hearing Billy Graham on TV in 1977. All I can day of Franklin, who earns a million plus a year, his Dad he ain’t, especially as a preacher. I quite frankly have no use for the man and his message which included suggesting Canadians break the law during the Trucker’s blockade in our nation’s capital last winter.
His ministry, Samaritan’s Purse is admirable, and I wish he had stuck with that.

Kat L
Kat L
1 year ago

Great hit piece.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
1 year ago

Apart from the distraction of secular politics, Franklin Graham has re-oriented his father’s emphasis on salvation . . . to an international ministry to disaster and disease victims throughout the world.
Just now, as we write, Samaritan’s Purse has teams of medical personnel operating in Turkey, ministering to the needs of people there after the earthquake.
Franklin is simply learning, the hard way, by the school of hard knocks, that close affiliation with contemporary politics, and the people therein, is not a direct path to the hearts of world citizens from all faiths and cultures who need the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
The immensity of his father’s legacy presented to Franklin a complex international organization that will be redeemed by the grace of God, not the savvy ability of one heir, to negotiate and work with all the forces of civilisation that tear us apart and sometimes compel us to work together as human beings, citizens of this planet, children of God… a Deity who will still save each one of us from the consequences of our own sin if we are willing to turn to Jesus, the only man in all of human history who lived, died, and the lived to tell about it. . . (See Gospels.)